On the need for a new Hallowe'en story—re-story-ation considered once again

Readings: 1 Peter 5:8-9: Brethen, be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour : Whom resist, steadfast in the faith. 

From Charles Taylor: “A Secular Age”, Belknap Press, Harvard UniversityPress, 2007, pp. 45-46

“. . . we can read mediaeval Catholicism one way as incorporating a kind of equilibrium based on hierarchical complementarity. This was certainly recognized as an organizing principle for the society as a whole. For instance, the famous formula: the clergy pray for all, the lords defend all, the peasants labour for all, encapsulates the idea that society is organised in complementary functions, which nevertheless are of unequal dignity. Similarly, the celibate vocations can be seen as higher, and undeniably the sacerdotal ones were so seen but this doesn’t prevent them balancing the other, lower modes of life in a functional whole. 
          What this means is that there is in principle a place for something less than the highest vocation and aspirations. The tension resolves into an equilibrium. We’ll see . . . that this was nor the whole truth of the late Middle Ages, but it was part of it. 
          Another way in which this feature of equilibrium in tension emerges in this society became evident in Carnival and similar festivities, such as the feasts of misrule, or boy bishops, and the like. These were periods in which the ordinary order of things was inverted, or “the world was turned upside down”. For a while, there was a ludic interval, in which people played out a condition of reversal of the usual order. Boys wore the mitre, or fools were made kings for a day; what was ordinarily revered was mocked, people permitted themselves various forms of licence, not just sexually but also in close-to-violent acts, and the like. 
          These festivals are fascinating, because their human meaning was at once very powerfully felt in them — people threw themselves into these feasts with gusto — and yet also enigmatic. The enigma is particularly strong for us moderns, in that the festivals were not putting forward an alternative to the established order, in anything like the sense we understand in modern politics, that is, presenting an antithetical order of things which might replace the prevailing dispensation. The mockery was enflamed by an understanding that betters, superiors, virtue, ecclesial charisma, etc. ought to rule; the humour was in that sense not ultimately serious.



What are we talking about when we speak of Hallowe'en today?

It’s tempting to think we can find out simply by going to an encyclopaedia such as wikipedia. If we do we’ll find many of them point us towards the day’s pre-modern, religious associations. They’ll firstly note it’s connection with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter — it’s a festival which is celebrated between sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November so, today, we’re still in Samhain. We’ll discover that on this day the souls of the dead were believed to revisit their homes and it is this belief that first connects the day with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies and demons, all of whom were said to be out and about during the hours of darkness. The encyclopeadia definition is also likely to tell us that many of Samhain’s observances came to influence the pre-modern Christian festival of All Hallow’s Eve, that is to say All Saints Eve. On this day, which is today, were commemorated all those souls believed to have attained the beatific vision in Heaven whilst the following day, All Souls, commemorated the souls of the departed faithful who were thought not yet to have been purified and reached Heaven.

But is that what is being celebrated on Hallowe’en today? I’m not sure it is and it is this doubt that generates my reflections today.

Back in 2010 I followed up a similar introduction from an encyclopedia by going on to introduce you to something said by the philosopher Charles Taylor in his influential 2007 book “A Secular Age”. In addition to the words of his you heard earlier, he noted that many pre-modern societies included in their make up a complementary “play of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code” and that this either took “the form of the code’s being momentarily suspended or transgressed; or else . . . the code itself allows for a counter principle to the dominant source of power; it opens the space for a complimentary ‘power of the weak’” (Charles Taylor: A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 2007, pp. 48-49). He goes on to note that it is “as though there were a felt need to complement the structure of power with its opposite.” (ibid. p. 49).

Here Taylor is pointing to the fact that many pre-modern, stable, dominant cultures needed to relax their codes and structures from time to time to enable it’s people to let off steam every now and then. Taylor notes that, were the dominant codes “relentlessly applied”, they would drain people of all energy and that “the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle.” In other words the dominant structures and codes valued by any pre-modern societies were interdependently related to their opposites.

This seems, in part to help to explain why throughout the world we find various festivals of misrule where the world is momentarily turned upside down and where once God, the wise and adults ruled there momentarily rule devils, fools and children.

So, to return to Halloween, it’s celebration in pre-modern cultures seems to fit into Taylor’s idea of an existence of a code, structure, anti-code and anti-structure. During Halloween God’s good world really did suddenly become filled with bad ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds. Satan was perceived to be a real leader of a real anti-structure to heaven (i.e. hell) and he and his minions were going to have their day, or rather their night before order was restored in the morning. I included our biblical reading from 1 Peter 5:8-9 as an illustration of the kind of advice about what a person was supposed to do with this fact. The verse came to form part of the daily office of Compline.

The temporary, yet subjectively real presence of dark anti-codes and anti-structures in people’s lives, served not to overturn or truly to threaten God’s code and structure but, instead, to reinvigorate and strengthen it. As you heard earlier, together these things allowed for what Charles Taylor calls “an equilibrium in tension”.

But things have radically changed since pre-modern times and, as we explored on Wednesday in our Festival of Ideas event on Religion after the death of God, the dominant Judaeo-Christian power with its own codes and structures has died in our own culture and with it has also come the death of its anti-codes and anti-structures. With the death of God comes the death of the Devil, and Hallowe’en, too, at least it’s original meaning and rôle, also necessarily dies.

In nearly every respect I have to say that I think this is a good thing because this process begins to clear the decks and enables us to think about new, naturalistic ways of speaking about the divine and the sacred and also how things get to be called by us, and experienced as, good and evil.

But I’m sure all of you will be aware that when any equilibrium falls apart (as it has done many times in human history) it’s likely to take a long, long time for a new equilibrium to develop and in the meantime we begin to experience disorder, confusion and ferment. In the darkness of our lived moment, it is hard — if not impossible — to second guess exactly how things are going to play out in the long run. But, although our own times are ones of disorder, confusion and ferment we really must not forget that these times are also the womb of creativity and rebirth and they offer us the opportunity to start a whole new era. Remember here the old curse (or is it a blessing?): “May you live in interesting times.” Well, we most certainly do live in interesting times. But we need also to acknowledge that interesting times, in the sense of this saying, are always also confusing times because there is yet no new “normal”, no new "equilibrium in tension".

It is for this reason that I think I’m so confused by what’s going on with modern celebrations of Hallowe’en. However, in admitting to this confusion, I really don’t think that, on this occasion, it has anything to do with any lack of insight and acumen on my part because I simply think that our culture’s celebration of Hallowe’en is confused and it’s best to acknowledge this upfront rather than claim to know what’s going on.

But what we can say with some confidence is this: Although Halloween may once have been itself a highly useful and creative anti-structure and anti-code that meaningfully played itself out in relation to the dominant codes and structures of mediaeval Christianity today, it seems to be rather more a tool to help support and drive along the dominant, even quasi-totalitarian, structure and code of global, neoliberal capitalism. Think about it, Hallowe’en is surely part of the relentless effort to get us to buy an almost unbelievable amount of useless stuff which, in turn, keeps the big wheels of global capitalism turning. So, for example, analysts at “Planet Retail” — who describe themselves as “the world’s trusted provider of global retail forecasting, trend analysis, shopper insights and market information” — tells us that, between 2001 and 2010 UK spending on Hallowe’en goods rose from just £12m in 2001 to £235m — a 20-fold increase. This increase has only continued upwards in the years which followed and this year the Guardian reports that “supermarkets are banking on a sales surge this Hallowe’en, with one City analyst calculating shoppers could spend up to £460m on fancy dress, food and decorations.” Another astonishing statistic — astonishing to me anyway — is that nearly 16,000 Halloween costumes are being sold every day on Ebay’s UK site.

I don’t know about you but I strongly resist being drawn into this consumer frenzy, not least of all because I, personally, dislike global, neoliberal capitalism almost as much as I dislike the old supernaturalism with its Gods, angels, devils and demons. In other words I resist Hallowe’en because I don’t much care for it’s message under either under the old religious, supernaturalist equilibrium or under current conditions with all it’s associated disorders, confusions and ferments.

Just to be clear, none of this means that I don’t like stories and films about ghosts and ghoulies (those of you who know me well know I’m an almost obsessive fan of the ghost stories of M. R. James — the former provost of King’s College) nor, indeed, does it mean that I’m totally inured to some of the pleasures that capitalism offers us. This is an inconsistency to which I am prepared to admit.

But I’m conflicted about these things, too, and it certainly means that whenever I consider Hallowe’en today I have to acknowledge that I don't understand what is really going on.

You may say that I should just stop worrying about it and enjoy as much about the evening as I can. Well, yesterday I tried, and to a certain extent succeeded, as Susanna and I listened to “The Stone Tape” by Nigel Kneale, best known as the writer of Quatermass, on Radio Four’s “Fright Night”. (I well remember this story in it’s first incarnation on television back in the 1970s).

But it doesn’t seem to me to be right simply to lie back and accept the status quo because to do this would be to let the current state of disorder, confusion and ferment to continue.

So my question today is what meaningful contrary principle might we employ at Hallowe’en that can challenge the relentless desire to consume, consume, consume which, in turn is contributing to so many problems around the world?

We certainly need some kind of contrary principle in play if we are going to have a chance to move to a new ‘normal’ and ‘equilibrium in tension’ that isn’t so destructive of ourselves and the planet.

So what might a new Hallowe’en look like? Well, unlike the pale, entertainment and consumer driven Hallowe’en we have today, we need one that will really frighten the living daylights out of us and encourage us to put into play a dominant code and structure that makes sure the horror doesn’t come to dominate.

A real horror story is, of course out there, and we see it every night on our televisions, hear it on the radio, and read it in the news — war, genocide and ecocide abound, in quantities that the devils of old could only imagine. But, strangely, we don’t seem able to take it all in. I’m sure that this is mostly because many of us have taken some of it in and we simply can’t face what we see. I certainly feel this way many times a week, and sometimes many times a day.

But we do have to find ways to look the horror in the eye and find a creative way to let it help us build a new dominant code and structure, a new normal, a new equilibrium in tension that will lead us to a better and creative life for all. And if reality full on is too much for us, as it seems to be, then we have a pressing need to tell a new kind of horror story that can release in us a creative, healing energy rather than sap us dry and empty us of hope.

Stories are truly vital here.

But let's take comfort from the fact that we did this once with our old stories of Hallowe’en and as Mr Cattell, one of the characters in the M. R. James story, "The Diary of Mr Poynter" says, “What man ‘as done, as I was observing only a few weeks back to another esteemed client, man can do”. 

We have done it once and we can do it again and I can think of no better place to begin our thinking about this re-story-ation than by taking a long look at what is going on in the Dark Mountain Project. As they say on their website:

The stories which any culture tells itself about its origins and values determine its direction and destination. The dominant stories of our culture tell us that humanity is separate from all other life and destined to control it; that the ecological and economic crises we face are mere technical glitches; that anything which cannot be measured cannot matter. But these stories are losing their power. We see them falling apart before our eyes. New stories are needed for dark times. Older ones need to be rediscovered.”